Self-Aware As Emotionally Intelligent Beings

Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake.
– William James

In recent decades many researchers have critiqued the traditional approach to understanding human intelligence, saying that the standard measure of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is far too narrow.  It does not take into account the full range of ways in which humans are “smart,” as Howard Gardner argues in his theory of multiple intelligences.

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the work of Daniel Goleman, who popularized the idea of emotional intelligence with his 1995 book called, Emotional Intelligence. Many people have expanded on Goleman’s work. I have read several books applying Goleman’s theories to leadership development, including Primal Leadership and Resonant Leadership by Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis.

As with all approaches aimed at helping us to foster a life of meaning and effective relationships, the key to emotional intelligence is self awareness. We need to learn to become aware of what we are feeling when we are feeling it.

That awareness, however, is only the first step. Next, we need to learn to manage our responses to the particular feelings we can now name. In other words, we must learn to recognize the feeling, and then to appropriately respond to its presence in the moment.

Some of the emotions we have are tied to instinctual reactions humans developed when we gained our livelihood through hunting and gathering. They were helpful back  then in stimulating in us a quick reaction when faced with a roaming tiger or otherwise frightening challenge. They are less helpful in today’s workplace.

Today we need to learn to recognize instinctual feelings such as fright, anger or resistance (or conversely attraction) and learn how to intentionally regulate our behaviors in response to those feelings. This difference between reaction and response is critical. The time gap within which we get to make the choice between reaction and response may only be a moment, but the more able we are to recognize our feelings as they come up, the more often we can stop ourselves from saying or doing something we will later regret.

The better we get at recognizing our feelings as they come up, the more often we can say to ourselves, “I’m not sure how to respond here. I need to give myself some space and time to think about how I am feeling right now about what just happened. Then I’ll decide how to respond.”

A good example of this for me now-a-days comes from our use of email as a primary mode of communication. Every once in a while, I open up an email and find upon reading it that I am flooded with emotions in reaction to the tone or message it conveys.  If the message contains a criticism, I may react with anger or embarrassment, or both. Whenever this happens, I now know that I need to allow a period of time (which may be several hours or even a day) to allow myself to explore those feelings, and respond to the sender with words that move the situation along in a positive way. I ask myself now, “How would I like my “best self” to reply?” In this way, I avoid creating more harm by replying with words that correspond with how I want to instinctively react.

Another key insight here is the recognition that our feelings are simply that: our feelings. They happen to us automatically in response to our experiences. Therefore, we need not judge them as “good” or “bad” feelings.  Often, they are what we are instinctively programmed to do in that situation.

Our feelings also can have a story associated with them, and may come forth in us because the current situation taps into that story.  Our present feelings can have little to do with what is happening now, and a lot more to do with an experience we once had. Getting in touch with the story of our feeings is another way of becoming more self aware.

Becoming more aware of our feelings and how to manage them are only the first two components of Goleman’s approach to emotional intelligence. Goleman lists five components in all:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skill

Goleman suggests that people skilled around the components of motivation and empathy understand the emotions of others as well as their own. They themselves are highly motivated, yet know their own limits. They also know how to relate well with the feelings of others.

According to Goleman, socially skilled people tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances, and have a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds. Goleman is not talking here about someone who is constantly socializing. Rather, he means having the ability, whether at home, with friends, or in the workplace, to get others to join with you in what you seek to accomplish.

You may have noticed that the first three components of EQ are all self-management skills. The last two concern a person’s ability to manage relationships with others. As you might suspect, social skill is really a culmination of all of the other components. As Goleman summarizes his theory, people tend to be very effective at managing relationships when they can:

  • understand and control their own emotions.
  • can empathize with the feelings of others.

EQ can be learned but it is not easy. It takes commitment and time for self reflection. I have found, though, that the benefits truly are worth the effort. The more I exercise my EQ in relationships, the more quickly I can put negative experiences behind me, keep my relationships on an even keel, and wake up in the morning looking forward to another good day.

A free online EQ test is available here:

For a free copy of the article by Daniel Goleman in Harvard Business Review titled “What Makes a Leader” visit:

A more extensive summary and more resources on EQ are available at:

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